Sober Reflections: A Philosopher's Advice On Going Dry

Why feasting and fasting are both lows masquerading as highs.

Feasting and fasting are two sides of the same coin: altered attitudes to eating that reflect special moments in the year, changes of moods or attempted corrections. The heady spectacle of the Venice Carnivale celebrates a return to meat after religious abstinence and a need for excess, just as excessive fasting suggests a necessary correction to overindulgence. Each enjoyable in its own way because they mark a departure from the everyday and we know they will make us feel different. Endless feasting would soon pall into a dulling of the senses, and, like excessive fasting, would end up as a form of pathology.

However, these states reflect different attitudes and have entirely different time courses.

To feast is to look forward, to anticipate more and more pleasures, but while each item is enjoyed as much or more than the last there will come a time when eating anything else is unsustainable. It reminds me of Kingsley Amis’s apt remark that getting drunk was very pleasurable but that being drunk was not. It is traveling towards being full that we like but not the consequences of it. It is with a mild sense of disgust that we may turn away from food and drink after a binge to attempt a purification of the body.

Fasting on the other hand always looks back. A race against and away from the calorific loading that we hope will fade. How long we can do without food shows our mettle, our resolve, our determination and self-mastery, and for many there is a pleasure in this. It’s not an entirely joyless state; there is a euphoria in feeling less weighed down, less sluggish and there is the equally indulgent pleasure of denying oneself something desired. This is all about the illusion of control. 

Of course the physiological effects should not be forgotten. As we deny the body any calorific intake, it will start to digest its own fat stores and the by-product of breaking down fats is highly enjoyed by the hungry brain. That’s why many people will experience a high when fasting: a high they can get dangerously hooked on. 


"Resisting feasting and fasting may be impossible for many of us, but resisting the excesses of both, and the inevitable lurch from one to the other is the wisest council."


At the other extreme, there is the moment when high intake of food and alcohol charges the system and drives up activity in the nucleus accumbens: the pleasure centre in the brain. The rising pleasure swells the heart and the lift is faintly intoxicating. This will eventually lead to a downturn as we lurch over into excess. But before that moment, as we sip a delicious drink and taste yet more delicious mouthfuls, we reach the sweet spot: a blissfully distracting state that carries no intimation of how short-lived it is; so we press on.

To do anything to excess is likely to lead to trouble, and it is sensible moderation – the middle way – that is probably the most satisfying option, as Aristotle recommended. However, many of us will want to sail just a little closer to the wind and to tack against its pull with periodic corrections.

So, the idea of dry January gives people some respite from alcohol and a milder feeling of purification. But for all the satisfaction of the spirit is it really as good for the body as we think? The way our system deals with alcohol is due to the body’s production of alcohol dehydrogenase, and when we desist from all alcohol the body’s production of it drops. So our return to drink will be harder for our system to process and alcohol will enter the bloodstream more rapidly. That’s why bouts of binging and abstinence are bad for us. Steady though moderate drinking may mean less abuse of the system overall. 

Resisting feasting and fasting may be impossible for many of us, but resisting the excesses of both, and the inevitable lurch from one to the other is the wisest council. And remember, the urge to gorge and binge, although induced by the moment, the company and the rush may be less about seeing happiness and more about avoiding it.

Often blow-outs are a low masquerading as a high, and seeking happiness, may, as Bertrand Russell thought, be more about eliminating those things that make you unhappy. Finding out what truly makes you happy and sticking to that course may take more work and effort but the in the end the rewards could be greater.

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